Norman Matheson MBE 1932-2022

It is with sadness that I report that Norman Matheson MBE passed away at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary yesterday, 10th January. He was 89. Norman was born in Inverness. He spent his formative years in Avonside a few miles from Tomintoul, the Moray-shire mountain village where he had his early education. 

His father was, for a while, a garage manager in Inverness and his mother a district nurse in the village. Norman was educated at Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen, and he studied at Aberdeen University before entering the medical profession.

His speciality was in General Surgery and in this he carried out significant research and was highly respected by colleagues in this field of medicine. Whilst at school he took an interest in bagpipe playing and was a promising young piper.  

This led to him to playing at Highland gatherings and, aged 19, he attended Kennethmont Games near Huntly in Aberdeenshire and featured in the prize lists. This was where he first met Bob Nicol, Robert Bell Nicol, one of the pipers who became known as ‘The Bobs of Balmoral’. 

Bob invited Norman for piping lessons. Their association was to last for 28 years. Bob was a fishing ghillie employed on the royal estate at Balmoral, and, as Norman was fond of field sports, they immediately struck a chord with each other. Bob Brown, the other ‘Bob’, was a stalker on the same estate.  

Norman strove for excellence in everything that he did. His pursuit of piobaireachd knowledge was unrelenting and thorough. He lugged a weighty reel to treel tape machine with him on his journeys up Deeside and studiously recorded tune after tune with Nicol. This study led to his winning the top prize for piobaireachd at the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society’s annual competition.

Norman became very respected in General Surgery. His tutor was Consultant Surgeon Hugh Freeman Dudley, who Norman described as a giant in surgical medicine. With Norman’s intellect and his personal determination, these two teachers, Dudley and Nicol, may have shaped him to be the person he was – exceptional in all of his endeavours.

In 1970 Nicol introduced him to judging and, in time, he became recognised as a highly esteemed judge of piobaireachd locally and nationally. After having judged at Braemar for more than 40 years, he was elected an Honoured Life Member of the Braemar Royal Highland Society. In 2016, at Ballater Highland Games, his long service to piping on Deeside was recognised by a presentation from HRH Prince Charles.

He retired from surgery in 1992 and lived at Milltimber, near Aberdeen, where, over several years, he created a large, much admired, woodland rhododendron garden. So admired was it that it featured on BBC television’s ‘Beechgrove Garden’ programme.

Norman in his beloved garden

Norman was interested in art and whilst at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary was the driving force behind a special project to cheer up the corridors and public areas with paintings and drawings. Grampian Hospitals Art Trust became known nationally as a flagship organisation of its type.

The result of this work can be seen on the walls of the hospital to this day, making the environment less cold and clinical for patients, visitors and staff. In recognition of his voluntary contribution, Norman was awarded the MBE in 1998. 

During retirement he had fun as a cartoonist, illustrating children’s and other books, including Robert Wallace’s book, ‘Young MacCrimmon and the Silver Chanter’. He also wrote and illustrated two much admired books, ‘A Speyside Odyssey’ and ‘Speyside Memories’, the former endorsed by a gracious foreword from HRH Prince Charles.

Norman the illustrator

Norman’s contribution to piping and particularly piobaireachd, is very significant. He was an avid letter writer and his extensive correspondence with learned authorities such as James Campbell, Kilberry, can be read on these pages.

Over four years in the 1970s, and using that heavy tape machine, Norman had recorded Bob Nicol’s oral interpretations of all relevant tunes in the Piobaireachd Society collection, reflecting his, Nicol’s, many years of instruction from John MacDonald, Inverness. These recordings were exchanged with piping societies world wide and other sources in return for recordings of Bob Brown’s playing and teaching.

The resulting oral and instrumental archive, edited by Norman and Robert Wallace, was published as Masters of Piobaireachd, a highly successful and ground-breaking compilation of ten instructional CDs, which comprehensively enshrined John MacDonald’s interpretations as faithfully disseminated by his two major pupils by far.

The first, ground-breaking recording in the ‘Masters of Piobaireachd’ series

The recordings were done in a fairly informal way and the Bobs, when making them, would have had no idea that their material was destined to be committed to such a format and sold worldwide. Safe to say that every serious piobaireachd player and enthusiast globally has referred to these recordings and they will endure as a reference to good piobaireachd playing. All profits from sales are given to piping charities, the latest recipient being Braemar Junior Highland Games.

Norman, having been pre-deceased by his son Malcolm and his wife, is survived by his daughters Fiona and Catriona and his daughter-in-law Gillian and their families.

Norman Matheson took a serious interest in all of his pursuits, was not a bombastic academic, nor was he a servile person by nature. He was an outstanding servant to the medical profession and indeed a servant to the study of piobaireachd. In his wide interests, he touched a lot of people in different ways. I will remember him fondly and will recall with pleasure the many times we shared the bench at the Games on good days and bad.

Duncan Watson

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7 thoughts on “Norman Matheson MBE 1932-2022

  1. Mr Matheson was a true renaissance man, and his impact on the world was far reaching and profound. May you Rest In Peace, and may our memory of your example serve as a guiding light for us all.

  2. Norman was an excellent judge at Braemar Gathering for many years. It was an honour to have known him.
    A true gentleman.

  3. A true gent and a great loss to the piping fraternity!!
    Always open to different interpretations of the great music.
    Donald MacPherson held him in the highest regard.
    A sad loss. My thoughts to his family and close ones.

  4. Yes, very sad news. Norman was a true gentleman and will be greatly missed by all who had met him over the years at the games and other events.

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